The Fantasticks, Book and Lyrics by Tom Jones, Music by Harvey Schmidt, loosely based on "The Romancers," a play by Edmond Rostand. Directed by Andrew Volkoff.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Without a hurt the heart is hollow."
Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones wrote their first major musical for a summer theater at Barnard College in New York. It later opened off-Broadway at the Sullivan Street Theatre in 1960. It has almost never seen the sunset of an eternal long-run. Somewhere someone is always putting it back onto the stage.
It is an engaging piece, complete with hit songs like "Try to Remember," "Soon It’s Gonna Rain," and "Plant a Radish." It transforms the traditional boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl concept into just the barest extension of that rudimentary plot by adding two scheming fathers, a bandit-for-hire and two ancient actors who quote Shakespeare and die effectively. There is also a wall, played by a Mute who also becomes a tree and a variety of weather, as needed.
Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA has extended its season into the autumn by presenting the tiny musical on its large main-stage for a short run. This sweet, expressionistic show - the "Urinetown" of its day - is bizarrely not dated. It’s conceptual sensibility has never altered and the reality of young love and the realizations that come to young lovers about themselves and one another have never changed. Neither has the popularity of this musical.
There are some odd things happening at the theater on Union Street, however, and most of them have nothing to do with the show itself. As with so many shows these days the ultimate version of the play lies with the sound engineer, in this case one Tristan Wilson. While the theater is distinguished by its access to the stage from any seat in the house, there is a whole lot of major miking going on, much of it probably unnecessary. Steve Wilson, who plays El Gallo - the narrator/bandit - is so overmiked that in his first number, "Try to Remember," it is as though he was singing a capella, without accompaniment, rather than with a grand piano and a full-sized harp (Note to the Program author: This is a harp and not a harpsichord which is a keyboard instrument). In fact for most the evening, the harp might as well not exist and the piano might well be in another building. The balance of sound is so way off base.
Wilson, who is the principal player in this show, gets to show off his talents in many ways. He sings, dances, acts, narrates, makes modest love and maximum fun with his flexible body, face and voice. He is a major asset to this show. If his voice is small there is no way to tell with the overly loud amplification of his voice which also was overwhelmed by occasional reverberation and noises that caused the theater to unplug their assisted hearing devices. Wilson turns in an excellent performance in spite of the technical overhaul of his ability and personality.
As the young man, Matt, who is the romantic lead of the play, Cory Michael Smith does a very nice job. He is personable and attractive and a good singer to boot. I was especially delighted with his scene of disillusionment, a strong and definitive representation of all that goes with the return of the prodigal son.
His Luisa, the sixteen year old girl-next-door-friend, was played by Dana DeLisa whose singing was often wonderful, but occasionally off-pitch and shrill. She plays very young very well, however, and can be forgiven an occasional ramble into some other key. Together she and Smith make a charming duo.
Their two fathers are played with delicious differences by Darin DePaul as the boy’s Dad and John-Charles Kelly as the girl’s. Their three numbers are definitely highlights of the show, but those numbers often are. DePaul has a nice way with the nasty streak in Hucklebee while Kelly takes his few shots in anger with a soft relish that is both charming and delicate.
Bob Sorenson does nice work with Mortimer, the English actor who delights in death scenes and Gordon Stanley is at his very best as Henry, the Old Actor. Breaking into Shakespeare at the drop of a hatpin, Stanley makes the most of every opportunity and he is wonderfully funny.
The Mute is played by Jonathan Karp and his work, almost non-stop in this show, is a joy.
The show has been cleaned up in the years since it first appeared with the Rape Ballet transformed into the Abduction Ballet and the word "rape" written out of every lyric and dialogue passage, save one, in an effort to make the show politically correct. I know it may not be the accepted thing to laugh at the concept of rape, but the show’s slight edge has been diminished, dulled, by the unnecessary alteration.
The physical production has a cheery, traditional look to it even though it belongs in the company's smaller, more intimate second stage. The best costumes are those belonging to Henry and Mortimer, the finest set piece is the painted backdrop which lighting designer Jeff Davis uses beautifully to create mood, establish time of day or night and highlight the musical moments brilliantly while never distracting from the forestage action. A few unfortunate hanging positions for his lights bring unwanted shadows to the sun, a few faces and spaces but never leave us unaware of an important if small piece of action.
There’s not much time to see the most seen musical ever. There’s nothing that would disturb a child, or an adult or a senior adult contained in this show. That is the nature of the play. Director Andrew Volkoff has delivered on the promise of The Fantasticks. He brings to life an era from the end of the century before last in last century’s garb with a perfect placement in our own time. He has made timelessness its own pleasure leaving us with the feeling that Schmidt and Jones wrote the show for this year’s Barnard College festivities: a contemporary college, summer theater show with a theatrical score that makes it just so much better than that.
Dana DeLisa and Steve Wilson; photo: Kevin Sprague
Gordon Stanley, Cary Michael Smith, Bob Sorenson; photo: Kevin Sprague
John-Charles Kelly and Darin DePaul; photo: Kevin Sprague
The Fantasticks runs through October 18 at Barrington Stage Company’s main stage space on Union Street in Pittsfield. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-236-8888.